Table of Contents
- Chinese and Japanese Color Symbolism
- Colors in Japanese Culture and Their Meanings
- Colors in Chinese Culture and Their Meanings
- Lesson Summary
East Asian countries are among the many global nations and regions that place value on colors. In Chinese and Japanese culture, colors play an essential role in representing aspects of society such as feelings, rituals, ceremonies, or other events. While each traditional Japanese or Chinese color may not represent the same ideals, they are recognized for their symbolic meaning and deeply engrained involvement in many activities.
Colors in China and Japan can be considered either lucky or unlucky. Each culture places value on specific colors as a positive or negative symbol. In some situations, a color may even be regarded as offensive. This lesson will explore the symbolism of Chinese and Japanese colors and the color meanings in both China and Japan.
China has heavily influenced traditional Japanese colors and their meanings throughout history. The origins of important Japanese colors and their symbolism date back to the 7th century when Chinese presence was heavy on the island of Japan. Though the color meanings are not the same as in China, Japanese colors have their roots in the Chinese philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Taoism was not a significant philosophy in Japan as it was in China, but it played a small role in how Japanese ideals are represented differently than in China. Confucianism led to the association of each social class with color and partly influenced the meaning of certain colors in Japan.
The largest Chinese influence on traditional Japanese color symbolism was the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and the native Japanese religion of Shintoism. Under these animalistic ideologies (in which nature spirits were worshiped), colors represented the core values of living a pure and modest life. White, black, red, and blue are considered the only genuine and primary colors in Japanese culture. Other colors also hold symbolic meaning, but most Japanese traditions, clothing, architecture, and events are represented through the primary colors of the language.
White is a popular color in Japanese culture because it is symbolic of purity. It is used as the background on Japan's flag to represent the nation's purity and reverence for the gods in the light of the rising sun. White is especially symbolic when paired with red. White is also known as a color that symbolizes divinity, truth, simplicity, humility, and mourning. Initially, white was only worn at funerals. It was rarely worn in everyday life. Over time and through Western influence, the color of mourning has shifted from white to black. Modernly, white is worn in the commonplace, and black is generally reserved for sorrowful events such as funerals.
White is used as the focal point of many Japanese Shinto shrines. White sand, white pebbles, and other white decorations are representative of the purity of the gods. Drawn from Buddhism, white can additionally represent the wisdom and knowledge of the gods present at Shinto shrines.
Another important traditional Japanese color is black. Black is commonly associated with formality (or formal events), elegance, and mourning. It may also represent unhappiness, fear, evil, bad luck, or misfortune. Black has been historically used in formal attire such as that of samurai, inspired by the social ranking system of Confucianism. The color black also represented the lowest two ranks in the Japanese social class system, opposite purple.
The oldest known use of the color black was in tattoos. Fishermen and hunters would draw fish tattoos or game on their skin to protect them from bad fortune. Black tattoos later labeled prisoners who had performed acts of bad luck. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), some individuals would dye their teeth black using a solution of dissolved iron and vinegar to be fashionable. Black is also used in calligraphy and ink painting to create simplistic yet beautiful pieces of artwork.
Red is one of the most dominant colors in Japanese culture. It is the symbolic color of the imperial nation, represented as a filled circle (to symbolize the sun) on the national flag. The color red is associated strongly with authority, strength, sacrifice, joy, and happiness. It is regarded as an auspicious color in Japan, especially when paired with white (also used on the national flag). Red is used in decorations at important events such as weddings and birthdays, and it is also commonly worn at gatherings such as these.
The color red is used heavily in Japanese architecture, especially at Shinto shrines. The specific red color, akani, is believed to offer protection from evil or disaster. It also increases the spiritual connection between humans and the gods worshipped at Shinto shrines, or kami. Shinto celebrations use the color red to reach out to the gods more effectively as well. In ancient history, red colors were created using pigments from the Rubia Akane or the Safflower.
The final primary color in Japanese culture is blue. Blue commonly represents the sea and the sky (for which Japan is surrounded) and symbolizes purity, dignity, calmness, stability, security, and fidelity. Indigo is a natural and popular shade of blue made from the leaves of the indigo plant. It is used extensively in clothing and textiles, common-wear, and formal attire. Many business people and students wear blue clothing traditionally to show their calm and serious intentions in the workplace. Blue can also be found in some architecture and technology, but it is not as commonly seen in these applications as the other primary colors.
The primary colors of Japan are not the only colors that hold significance in the nation and its culture. Other popular colors in Japan include:
Each of these colors represents essential values and ideals of Japanese society. They are among the most used colors in traditional and celebratory clothing, including on kimonos, a traditional Japanese robe. Vibrant purple robes usually are used to honor a member of society. In contrast, vibrant green and pink floral patterns are used on kimonos and other clothing articles to symbolize peace, life, and happiness. The geisha famously wore a different colored kimono for every month of the year.
The important colors in Chinese culture have changed over time but have remained heavily influenced by the religions found throughout the region. The preferred colors result from the cosmological philosophies of Taoism/Daoism, which teach the balance of cosmological forces to attain spiritual harmony. There are five elements to Taoism, each represented by a different color and each representing a different relationship to the spiritual forces. The philosophies found within Taoism balance through feng shui, a belief which describes elements and colors being used to control the flow of spiritual energy in a specific setting. The five traditional Chinese colors are red, yellow, qing/grue (green-blue), black, and white. The lucky Chinese colors are used in art, architecture, everyday life, and more.
Red in Chinese culture is associated with fire. It is a lucky Chinese color that brings vitality, success, and happiness. Red is very commonly found in Chinese decorations, clothing, and architecture and during festivals such as the lunar New Year celebrations. The color red can also be found on invitational red envelopes to these events. Red is the color used to represent the Chinese government and connects to Communism. It is prohibited to be used or worn at mourning events (such as funerals) and cannot be used to write names or letters.
Yellow is another significant Chinese color. This color is associated with the Earth, power, prosperity, luck, and a central life direction. Yellow or gold is very representative of imperial royalty has historically has been used or worn by the emperor of China. At one point in history, yellow was the focal point of China's national flag. In Buddhism, yellow denotes freedom or detachment from mourning, and it typically is not worn at funerals as a result. Yellow presently has a negative association in media and brand marketing, typically symbolic of pornography. The color yellow remains commonly seen in architecture and everyday clothing.
Qing is an interesting Chinese color that combines green, blue, and black. It is sometimes referred to as grue (green-blue). Taken apart, green represents vitality, healing, and health, while blue is the color of trust, immortality, and advancement. Qing often represents the element of wood seen in many forms of Chinese architecture. Qing is also used in clothing, product marketing, and homes to promote health, prosperity, and well-being.
Black is one of the most important colors in Chinese culture. It is a color of authority, symbolizing water, knowledge, stability, and power. Black is one of the two neutral colors and the opposite of white. Together, they create a balance in the universe, with black representing destruction, disaster, and suffering while white represents purity. Though black may have a negative connotation, it also represents the northern and western sky and the heavens. Black has been used widely in Chinese art and fashion. It was historically relied upon to create calligraphy and paintings. Modernly, it is used on police uniforms and government vehicles to show authority and control. Black typically is not worn to happy events such as weddings.
The fifth Chinese color of significance is white, the opposite of black, and the second neutral color of the universe. White is representative of metal and is considered unlucky. White is negatively associated with death and mourning, but also with positive ideals such as purity. White is mainly worn at funerals only, but it appears heavily in consumer products, including automobiles, watches, toys, and cell phones.
The five traditional colors in China represent many aspects of society, but other colors also have an important symbolism in Chinese culture. For example,
Colors have a significant meaning in both China and Japan. They represent ideas and aspects of society used for many centuries. In Japan, colors have been heavily influenced by Shintoism and Zen Buddhism. Japanese culture's four primary, pure, and genuine colors are white, black, red, and blue. White is a color of purity, and black is associated with elegance or misfortune. Red is the royal color of imperial Japan and is used to symbolize power. It is a lucky color used in Japanese architecture and Shinto shrines. Blue represents calmness, stability, and security and the sea and sky surrounding Japan.
Traditional Chinese colors are defined by the religious philosophy of Taoism/Daoism and further balanced through the ideas of feng shui. There are five sacred elements or colors in Taoist beliefs: red, yellow, qing/grue (green-blue), black, and white. Red is associated with fire and is a lucky color bringing happiness and success. Yellow is the royal or imperial color of China, worn by many Chinese emperors throughout history. It also represents the Earth. Qing is a combination of blue, green, and black, and it represents health, vitality, the element of wood. Black symbolizes water, authority, and power. It is balanced by white, which represents metal and is regarded as a color of mourning.
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There are five traditional colors in Chinese culture. Red is considered a lucky color that brings vitality, joy, and happiness. Yellow is the royal color of China, having been worn by many emperors throughout history to represent power, prosperity, and luck. Qing combines blue, green, and black, representing healing, health, and advancement. Black in Chinese culture can be either lucky or unlucky, but it makes up half of the universal balance from its association with evil. White is a color of purity and mourning, balancing the universe from the ideals represented by black.
In Japan, there are only four colors to be considered primary, pure, and genuine. White is a color of purity and represents truth, humility, and mourning. Black is associated with formality as well as mourning. Red is symbolic of the sun and is linked to authority, strength, sacrifice, joy, and happiness. Blue represents the sea, the sky, and the ideals of calmness, stability, and security.
Purple is not a bad or unlucky color in Japanese culture. Purple is commonly associated with royalty or nobility. Purple can also represent wisdom and spirituality.
Colors may be used offensively in certain situations in Chinese culture.
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